Title: Are All Men Created Equal?
Word count: 1734
Abraham Lincoln argued that the claim in the Declaration of Independence that `all men are created equal` was a challenge to future generations of Americans. Lincoln’s argument has been proven right by the sustained struggle that had to be waged in order to get all Americans to accept the claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. Some of the great minds of America took a critical look at American society of their time, after the passage of the great Lincoln. They have expressed differing opinions on this important but vexed issue of the equality of all men, as enshrined in the document bearing the name of American Declaration of Independence.
W.E.B. Du Bois
It was the opinion of W.E.B. Du Bois that America of his time had failed woefully to meet Abraham Lincoln’s challenge. America was still a society divided on strictly racial lines. There was neither equality nor justice for Black Americans. Du Bois’s concept of the “double consciousness” originated from the idea that ‘being black was antithetical to being American’; a sentiment which Du Bois expressed in 1903. In his opposition to the idea of tacit acceptance of inferiority status for the Negro, which was put forward by Booker T. Washington in his policy of racial accommodation and gradualism, Du Bois asserted that it was the duty of all black men to continue the struggle for full freedom after their emancipation from slavery.
“The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,—a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 1
While rejecting Booker T. Washington’s willingness to avoid rocking the boat of racial inequality, W.E.B. Du Bois called instead for political power. He also insisted on civil rights, and the higher education of Negro youth. In his now famous essay entitled: “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”, Du Bois quoted from the famous English poet, Byron:
“From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” 2
As at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Black Americans had been totally disenfranchised, excluded from Higher Education, and deprived of the right to equal employment with other races. It was therefore the opinion of Du Bois that American society had failed the challenge posed by Abraham Lincoln. W.E.B. Du Bois then goes on to throw a challenge at White American society:
“Men of America, the problem is plain before you. Here is a race transplanted through the criminal foolishness of your fathers. Whether you like it or not the millions are here, and here they will remain. If you do not lift them up, they will pull you down. Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work – it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” 3
Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs is forthright in his opinion that the America society of his time had failed in meeting the challenge posed by Abraham Lincoln, of the realization of the claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. According to Debs, the degree of hostility towards the Negro especially by the white men of the American South in his time makes a mockery of the Lincolnian challenge. In his landmark article in the International Socialist Review of 1903, Eugene Debs states inter alia:
“…in the state of Louisiana, where the race prejudice is as strong and the feeling against the “nigger” as bitter and relentless as when Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation lashed the waning Confederacy into fury and incited the final and desperate attempts to burst the bonds that held the southern states in the federal union. Indeed, so thoroughly is the south permeated with the malign spirit of race hatred that even Socialists are to be found, and by no means rarely, who either share directly in the race hostility against the Negro, or avoid the issue, or apologize for the social obliteration of the color line in the class struggle”.4
The attitude of White America to the Negro is further illustrated by Debs in the following extracts from the same article:
“The white man in the south declares that “the nigger is all right in his place”; that is, as menial, servant and slave. If he dare hold up his head, feel the thrill of manhood in his veins and nurse the hope that some day may bring deliverance; if in his brain the thought of freedom dawns and in his heart the aspiration to rise above the animal plane and propensities of his sires, he must be made to realize that notwithstanding the white man is civilized (?) the black man is a “nigger” still and must so remain as long as planets wheel in space.” 5
Thus as far as Eugene debs could visualize in the early twentieth century, white America was unable and unwilling to meet Lincoln’s challenge.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King was more optimistic about American society rising up to the challenge of Abraham Lincoln, on the claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. His Much quoted speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. “I have a dream” could be said to mark a turning point in both White and Black American consciousness that they have a problem of gross inequality in their society, and to attempt to rise up to the Lincolnian challenge.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…..This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia ]! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” 6
Modest gains in equality of the races have been made since Martin Luther King made that speech. However, there is still much work to be done if the full implementation of Abraham Lincoln’s challenge that all men are born equal is to be met.
1. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois III Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others, page 46 / 200 Quoted from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DUBOIS/ch03.html (Accessed July 13, 2007)
3. The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today (New York: J. Pott & Company, 1903), pp. 33-75.
4. International Socialist Review, Vol. IV, No. 5. November 1903
6. Martin Luther King: I have a dream, http://aparthied0.tripod.com/King.html
The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois III: Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others, page 46 / 200
International Socialist Review , Vol. IV, No. 5. November 1903
King, Martin Luther: I have a dream… http://aparthied0.tripod.com/King.html (Accessed July 13, 2007)